Against the wall: The journey of Singapore’s street art scene from fringe to mainstream

Against the wall: The journey of Singapore’s street art scene from fringe to mainstream

Channel NewsAsia·2018-01-20 17:35

From its underground graffiti roots in the mid-1990s to its current mainstream renaissance, Singapore’s street art movement has come a long way. Channel NewsAsia’s Mayo Martin reports on the history of a local art movement that went through many ups and downs.

Before it was closed, the Railway Corridor was briefly a place where street artists could create works. (Photo: National Arts Council)

SINGAPORE: In one of the rooms at Aliwal Arts Centre, you'll get a snapshot of what Singapore’s street art scene used to be like – if you look hard enough.

Inside 10 small black boxes are dioramas recreating old graffiti pieces done by artists such as Skope, Syco and Killer Gerbil. Long since erased, some of these date back to the early 2000s and were once seen in places such as railway tracks and longkangs.

These painstakingly created works are part of the exhibit MATAS (Make A Terrific Artwork Someday).

Presented by street art collective RSCLS and artist Ryf Zaini as part of the Aliwal Urban Arts Festival during Singapore Art Week, the show also includes a section where visitors can do their own “tagging” – under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras that broadcast their movements in another space full of television screens.

This reflects how the local street art movement originated with practitioners creating work that was often at risk of falling foul of the law.

MATAS, an exhibition by RSCLS and Ryf Zaini for the Aliwal Urban Arts Festival, features small dioramas recreating old graffiti artworks. (Photo: Harris Sim)

RSCLS founder Zero, whose real name is Zulkarnaen Othman, points to one of the dioramas.

It's a stylised illustration of a rat with the words “On Yer Mark” beside it. It's an old work by artist OneTwoDelta, who painted it near the train tracks in Kembangan.

“He just came around with a small bucket of black paint and a brush. Two hours. Just like that,” said Zero.

IT STARTED IN THE STREETS

The graffiti works on display may have once been created in a flash, but the whole story of street art in Singapore has been a slow and steady one, full of highs and lows through the decades.

Most practitioners peg its beginnings to 1995, the year when early pioneers Skope and Xero took to the streets with their aerosol cans.

The two eventually formed Operation Art Core (OAC). Another pioneering group, Zinc Nite Crew (ZNC), also came up in 1998.

One of the dioramas at MATAS features this recreation of a graffiti piece by Singapore street art pioneer Skope. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

“I guess you could call that the ‘practice stage’. Most of it were taggings and bombings,” recalled former OAC member Sufian Hamri, also known as TraseOne, referring to the practice of spray-painting (or “writing”) initials on walls.

In 1999, a hip-hop gig at Somerset Youth Park, which featured a handful of graffiti artists, signalled a shift. “From there, it just blew up from 2000 onwards,” he said.

The start of the decade saw practitioners invading not just the streets but schools and galleries, as the Singaporean public was introduced to a new art movement.

Among the events were Graffitude, a workshop at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts in 2003, where TraseOne and his peers invited 200 students from different schools to try their hand at graffiti.

Exhibitions were also held at The Substation, The Esplanade, and the Singapore Art Museum, where an event called We Bomb SAM saw artists painting the museum’s facade.

Aliwal Arts Centre's urban arts festival has become one of the events through which the public can see street art in Singapore. (Photo: Aliwal Arts Centre)

Street art seemed to be on its way to gaining mainstream acceptance. A new Singapore Street Festival kicked off in 2002 and artists were working with companies like Levi’s, Puma and Nokia. Even pioneer Skope saw his works featured in a music video by Too Phat, Malaysia’s most famous hip-hop duo at the time.

FROM NDP TO GUERILLA SHOWS

Practitioners even found themselves on the biggest national stage of all. During the National Day Parade in 2004, there was a short “street culture” segment that featured a handful of graffiti artists.

“We had to wear those National Day costumes, and walked along the mobile ramps spray painting beside BMX riders. Back then, the most important thing was we had fun. But the street cred part was a bit…” said TraseOne, with a laugh.

While these were taking place in the public’s eye, the scene was also diversifying. A new group called ARTVSTS – which was also co-founded by RSCLS’ Zero – emerged in 2003. Unlike the early practitioners, they were using stencils and wheatpaste posters, and introduced characters instead of simply using stylised letters.

Taman Jurong Community Club wall next to Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre featuring Slac Satu's The Storyteller. (Photo: National Arts Council)

Artists continued doing unsanctioned work out on the streets, too.

“Back then, we’d hang out either around Kampong Glam or the area around the old NAFA building – there was an alley at the back which was all covered with posters, taggings and drawings. Eventually, these just got painted over,” said Zero.

It was also a very active scene. Zero recalled how one of the scene’s most elusive groups, Urban Zombies, once held a guerilla exhibition at a back alley near Club Street. Another of the group’s most infamous works was a huge poster piece near Stamford Primary School in Victoria Street – an image of a local punk rock mosh pit with the phrase Punk Is Not Dead.

CLEANING UP SINGAPORE

But by the mid-2000s, things started to change. A series of international events held in Singapore signalled the start of some outdoor spring cleaning.

In 2006, the country played host to the IMF-World Bank meetings. Two years later, Formula 1 rolled into town. In 2010, it was the Youth Olympic Games.

“Before these events, if you walked along Orchard Road, you would see stickers in every lamp post. And then suddenly, the city got cleaned up,” said TraseOne. 

“There was much less street art. Then people just forgot about it.”

The MATAS exhibition also touches on the issue of surveillance, which incidentally also played a part in the decline of street art in Singapore during the latter part of the 2000s. (Photo: Harris Sim)

These high-profile international events also meant heightened security surveillance. Suddenly, there were eyes everywhere.

While practitioners had always played cat-and-mouse with the police since the very beginning, the works they created even in sanctioned areas were also subject to scrutiny.

Zero recalled how ARTVSTS had a brush with the authorities over an anti-war mural at Skate Park in 2006. Artists Slac Satu and ClogTwo had created a piece titled For Palestine With Love. It featuring a child wearing a kaffiyeh and they had signed it in Arabic-style letterings. The wall was whitewashed.

Three years later, at the same venue, the group also held a fund-raising art event for the women and children of Gaza. It was deemed too political and the wall was cordoned off.

But incidents weren't always about politics – recent years have seen the occasional reports dealing with graffiti and vandalism. The most high-profile of these has been the case of “Sticker Lady” SKLO (Samantha Lo) and Antz (Anthony Chong), who were caught for a series of interventions revolving around the former's now-infamous My Grandfather Road work.

Samantha Lo, also known as SKLO, became known as the Sticker Lady after her infamous My Grandfather Road incident in 2012. (Photo: One East Asia/SKLO)

The incident took place in 2012 and the conversations it generated added fuel to a resurgence that was slowly taking place.

SG STREET ART VERSION 2.0

By the early part of this decade, street art was back with a bang. But it was in a wholly different environment – the contemporary art scene had finally gotten wind of these artistic rebels and institutions were slowly embracing them.

Group and solo exhibitions sprung up at private galleries; Government bodies and private institutions were commissioning street artists to spruce up their restaurants, hotels, malls and HDB blocks; art fairs were displaying their works.

In 2013, Zero became the first street artist to receive the Young Artist Award (along with fellow ARTVSTS founder and former practitioner Zaki Razak).

Practitioner Farizwan Fajari, also known as Speak Cryptic, said he noticed things were different as soon he started getting calls from Government agencies to do murals. 

Singaporean artist Speak Cryptic's mural A State Of Decline is one of the few Southeast Asian works at Art From The Streets. (Photo: ArtScience Museum)

The artist, who's incidentally part of ArtScience Museum’s own ongoing international street art show, added: “What was surprising was when they said ‘do your thing’. Like, really? I think that’s when I felt that things were changing in the street art movement. There’s a lot more ‘tolerance’.”

Tolerance might seem an apt word to describe the new situation. 

Unsanctioned graffiti on the streets is still considered vandalism, but state-sanctioned and endorsed spaces and opportunities have opened up for artists. 

Alongside with places and events like the Aliwal Urban Arts Festival and *Scape Youth Park are more recent ones such as the now-defunct Rail Corridor Art Space.

The most recent space can be found at 369 Tanjong Katong Road. Since June 2017, the former Katong Student Hostel has been transformed into a temporary “practice space” managed by the Singapore Land Authority and the National Arts Council (NAC). 

First piece of 2018, with @freakyfir ! Exploring fresher colors involving some streetwear~ 😊 It’s good to be back painting after a long holiday break. Hoping for a great productive year ahead!🤞🏻😊 _______________________________________________________ Music: Kyrrin-Journey • • • #mischiefmakers #funky #colorfull #fashionable #streetwear #streetfashion #girl #ape #chimpanzee #monkey #vandal #timelapse #timelapseart #mtncolor #loopcolors #mtn94 #spraycan #urbanart #sggraffiti #graffitiart #character #arthabit #spraypainting #streetart #anime #art #studiomoonchild #uwabakiklan #anacathie

A post shared by Anastasia Catharina (@anacathie) on Jan 12, 2018 at 9:48am PST

Among the many street artists who have been using the space is Anastasia Catharina, also known as Anacathie. Together with her artist partner-in-crime Freaky Fir, they have created eight of their anime-style pieces scattered throughout the spaces, including the main courtyard and hallways.

For Anacathie, who has been practicing for a year, the place has been a boon – she goes there almost every other weekend.

“I really love the space. It opens up opportunities for me to grow as a street artist, as we could do with more of such practice spaces/walls in Singapore,” she said.

MURALS, NOSTALGIA, COMMODITY

The 369 space is perhaps the best place to find street art at its rawest expression in Singapore. But there’s a catch – it’s closed to the public and artists have to sign up before they can go in.

“If you go there, it looks damn awesome. It probably has the highest density of graffiti art here in Singapore – but it’s only for the (street artist) community,” said Zero.

Outside the former Katong Student Hostel, which has been turned into a "practice space" for artists and is not open to the public. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

“Yes, if you want to paint and have fun, it happens there. But it’s like a studio where nobody sees the process and what not.”

For some practitioners, it’s a rather odd situation where sanctioned spaces are opening up but within certain guidelines and limitations.

And what of the proliferation of street art in Singapore? 

Events such as the Aliwal Urban Arts Festival has made the street art aesthetic popular among the public, including children. (Photo: Aliwal Arts Centre)

“Many of them are not street art but murals, which have existed way before street art. And many are packaged to pull at the heartstrings of peole – the old playgrounds, the Samsui women and what not – it’s all about nostalgia,” Zero said.

For him, much of street art has now become a “commodity”. “Nowadays, every city has their own festivals with giant murals. The proliferation of imagery has become something that’s attached to a kind of lifestyle. Even being rebellious is a kind of commodity now.”

FORGOTTEN LAYERS OF STREET ART

But fellow practitioner Sheryo thinks this mainstreaming of street art – and the presence of sanctioned spaces – is something local practitioners just have to deal with.

“I don’t think (Singapore’s street art scene) has lost its edge. If anything, it’s more interesting here because it’s still developing. It’s a good time to catch the moment,” said the Brooklyn-based Singaporean who works with fellow artist Yok from Australia. They, too, have a joint mural up at the ArtScience Museum show.

Brooklyn-based Singapore/Australia duo Sheryo & Yok's new mural Outlaws Of Style on the left. (Photo: ArtScience Museum) ​​​​​​​

“Every city has its challenges and Singapore has its own. If street artists are going to stop doing art just because of sanctioned walls, then it will never progress. Besides, Singapore is such an easy place to hop around from – you can go outside the country to paint, too.”

The NAC also prefers to look at the situation in a more positive light. The council has actively been working with public agencies to make spaces available for street artists and presenting street art through its various platforms such as Noise Singapore and Arts In Your Neighbourhood.

“Street art is important in bringing vibrancy to our Singapore landscape,” said Chua Ai Liang, senior director for engagement and participation.

Glow in the dark graffiti inside the MATAS exhibition at Aliwal Arts Centre. (Photo: Harris Sim)

“With Singaporeans and residents experiencing the arts within their communes, there is increased public awareness on how the arts can vitalise communities as part of creative place making.”

As the local street art scene enters its third decade – and the street art movement continues to grow as a global artistic force that’s hard to ignore – the debate is sure to continue. 

But practitioners want the discussion to grow too. “It kind of gets tiring when the issues are always about whether it’s vandalism or not,” said Zero.

“What I hope people to see are the reasons why the street was the medium used – a deeper understanding of why these are done in such a way.”

Wherever this debate will lead to in the future, one thing is for sure: The scene has had a truly rich and long history, and Zero has tangible proof.

One of Zero's most recent projects, The Sum Of Us, saw him cutting out portions of artworks at graffiti walls to see what lies beneath. (Photo: Zero)

For one of his most recent projects, the street artist went down to *Scape Youth Park last year not to create a new work, but to show what has been done before.

With a few assistants, he slowly cut out huge pieces of the existing works up on the wall with a pen knife. These rectangular pieces, which he eventually hung up in an exhibition, revealed the thick layer of paint that had accumulated through the years, some of which were up to 3cm-thick. The project was called The Sum Of Us.

“What I wanted to reveal was the layers of history,” he said. “And this is what we have been relegated to – forgotten layers on a wall.”

Layers of paint from years of artworks at *Scape Youth Park. (Photo: Zero)

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